The term “decompressed” is used by the City of Chicago to mean to clear out or move migrants out of the police stations and into shelters. Chicago started witnessing an increase of asylum seekers late last year. In our police district, district 22 in Morgan Park on Chicago’s far southwest side, it wasn’t until mid to late April of this year that asylum seekers called district 22 home.
Since April the Morgan Park, Beverly and Mount Greenwood community coalesced to marshal their collective networks to provide thousands of meals; breakfast, lunch, and dinner to up to 179 people, daily. The 19th Ward Mutual Aid group which was formed during the pandemic led the Police Station Response for District 22. We created WhatsApp groups based on the 100’s of volunteer’s assortment of skills. There was an Education group that conducted English as a Second Language (ESL) classes met during the summer months twice weekly and when school started registered all of the children in our local public schools. We had the only police district Medical group that conducted weekly clinics with volunteer health professionals where the 19th Ward Mutual Aid group covered the costs associated such as over the counter medication and prescription medicines. We had mental health group that help assist the city’s byzantine mental health system. The Interpreters group bridged the gap between our newest arrivals and their new country. The Laundry and Showers group to ensure cleanliness and gave these families a sense of pride. We had a Welcoming group that provided emergency kits for when the buses arrived that included toiletries and seasonally appropriate clothing. Messages started arriving before 6AM continuing until well after midnight. This was a very fast-moving situation. Asylum seekers were removed a few at a time, while another bus came to drop off more. We did not know when or how many. There were so many unknowns it was akin to building the plane as we were learning to fly it. The city rarely had answers to our many questions and requests. Yet we were always reminded that what laid in the balance were real people and their lives were in our hands. We were all unpaid volunteers with differing priorities in our personal lives and very few of us were accustomed to this type of work. Yet, we could not be wrong.
Then, you get notified that your police station will be “decompressed”. You often wondered was this another false alarm? The City of Chicago promised that they would have all the police stations emptied by December 1st, and we were notified on December 1st that there would be buses coming on December 2nd. We were also promised to be emptied out by June 30th, August 24th, and now December 1st. How did we know this was not another fire drill? We asked for confirmation at 7AM and were told that the buses will be there at 9AM. I am not sure if you ever witnessed such confusion and anxiety as a decompression of a police station. This would not be too dissimilar to college dorms being emptied out at the end of the school year, but on steroids. Less people, but add the language barrier, the children and they are only allowed to have two bags per person. After gathering our newest neighbors, whom we got to know despite of our differences, there were tears being shed. It was a real emotional moment that people had a hard time explaining. Our Nuevos Vecinos were moving on to the next stage of their journey and leaving our police station. They were headed into the shelter system, which was a complete unknown. The shelters are run by Favorite Staffing, a contactor that had a reputation for withholding food as a form of punishment. Volunteers are not allowed into the shelter system and therefore cannot assist or report on what is happening. At the police station the community bore witness to the plight of both our police and the asylum seekers.
When the buses started to pull away from the police station, we began our salvaging what was left behind and might be able to be reused. You could not help but feel an emptiness that overcame you. The term decompressed made more sense to me at that moment. For myself, this has been my unpaid fulltime job since June 15th. Working nearly 10–14-hour days seven days a week. Cajoling volunteers and donors while fighting with the city to provide answers and resources.
This all just ended. There was no next step. We were not working towards a finished product or a monument. It just ended.
Many of us have been leaning on our families and friends who patiently listened to us and supported us, though we neglected them during this time. You finally uncover the sense of guilt and selfishness that this experience has brought. Yet, too, we want to parent by example. Nearly all of us trace our roots to another country and we are the product of immigration. This is our way to pay it forward.
There is an emptiness inside and feeling like a boat in the middle of the ocean experiencing the doldrums. Personally, I need to go into job search mode in earnest and reclaim my life. I will try to help in any way I can. But one thing I can say, I am so proud of what we accomplished, both in our police district, but the other police districts too. We created a ripple that I believe will manifest into a tsunami. The generations that will come may not remember what we did, but they will have self-pride and dignity to make our city and country great. Perhaps that is the monument, as they will be standing on the shoulders of our newest neighbors.